Interview: South Korea’s action hero director talks about ‘Veteran’

September 18, 2015

Ryoo Seung-wan’s latest hit arrives in North America, with screenings beginning this week in 33 locations

Director Ryoo Seung-wan (Tae Hong/Korea Times)

Director Ryoo Seung-wan (Tae Hong/Korea Times)

By Tae Hong

Fifteen years ago, Ryoo Seung-wan burst onto the scene and hammered his name into South Korea’s film industry heads and headlines as the “action kid” with the dynamic dramedy “Die Hard.”

Now 41 years old, the director would nary qualify as a kid, but they say action speaks louder than words — and so it is for Ryoo and his newest offering, “Veteran,” a box office mammoth that has slayed South Korean records and landed in Chungmuro history as its seventh-most successful film of all time.

The star-studded pic, led by silver screen favorite Hwang Jung-min and young, charismatic Yoo Ah-in, has now arrived in North America, with screenings beginning this week in 33 locations.

A comic tragedy of sorts, two men on opposing ends of the moral and social spectrum — middle-class cop Seo Do-chul (Hwang), a bloodhound for justice, and slick-haired, out-of-control Cho Tae-oh (Yoo), heir to a conglomerate throne — come to a messy confrontation following a suspicious suicide attempt by a blue-collar truck driver.

Hwang is, as always, a larger-than-life presence, but it’s Yoo’s debut of a villain destined for posterity, the boundless and merciless Cho Tae-oh, that’s got people buzzing.

According to the director, the actor — who initially rose to stardom as the wholesome boy next door — was looking to shed his boyish image when he bumped into the director at a film festival in Busan.

Intrigued by Ryoo’s newest project, Yoo asked that a screenplay be sent directly to his email, not through his manager. The director obliged, and not long after, he had cast his bad guy.

Adept social commentary pairs with laugh-out-loud comedy, snappy editing and a fast, immersive pace as the work of a director who, after nine action-packed features, knows the game well.

Although Ryoo’s last film, the Ha Jung-woo- and Jeon Ji-hyun-helmed “The Berlin File,” brought in respectable numbers, it has become overshadowed by the success of “Veteran,” which is one of two record-breaking Korean efforts of the year (the other being Director Choi Dong-hoon’s “Assassination”).

Ryoo said he already sees the film as the biggest box office hit of his career. The numbers are nice, but they’re not the goal for the formerly indie filmmaker, who believes “record-breaking success could lead to record-breaking failure.”

Whether “Veteran” will be the (financial) crowning glory of Ryoo’s run is up in the air, but the bets being placed on his shoulders — sequels to “Veteran” (which he says has no screenplay yet) and “The Berlin File,” for two — are likely hoping he continues to work his car-crashing, knife-twisting, concisely choreographed magic.

Ryoo sat down with the Korea Times to talk “Veteran,” the psyche of his cinematographic villain and why he wants to bring his work closer to the younger generation.

Director Ryoo Seung-wan on the set of "Veteran" (Photo courtesy of CJ E&M)

Director Ryoo Seung-wan on the set of “Veteran” (Photo courtesy of CJ E&M)

Do you come by Los Angeles often?

It’s been about four times now.

If “The Berlin File” felt more like a Hollywood spy action film, “Veteran” felt almost like a cartoon. Tell me about your intentions.

I think “Berlin” might have felt that way because of its setting. It was filmed in Europe, and there are guns going off in that film. But for “Veteran,” every action scene is accompanied by humor and wit. It actually becomes a pretty dark story once it gets to its center, but I’ve already done many projects where I present dark matters in heavy tones. To me, it was important that audiences could leave the theater having watched it all the way through in a refreshed, light-hearted manner, but once they got to thinking about the themes, to realize the story being told had that many layers. I think it’s also important for a younger generation to be able to enjoy my films.

You mentioned the younger generation. Do you feel compelled to continue making the kinds of films that appeal to them?

If you look at my filmography, I actually had another film, “Arahan,” (2004) that drew in a lot of young viewers. But back then, I wasn’t very conscious of them. I was young then, too. With “Veteran,” I was. I’m in my 40s now, and now there’s a need for me to prepare to make content for the new generation. This film deals a lot with mistakes made by adults. I think my homework now is to figure out how best to communicate and sympathize with the young generation through my films. To a filmmaker, that’s very important.

The action you put on screen changes with each film you make. What was the focus of the action in “Veteran”?

I don’t think there is a “Ryoo-style” action. Each film deals with different worlds, different people and different stories. Of course, my personal preferences become the “OK” point, but I never point a film to the opposite direction just to incorporate what I like. I find a style that fits with each film. Maybe that’s my style — that it’s always changing according to what’s happening. If there is a commonality, I think it’s that I find using too much CGI and special effects uncomfortable.

Cho Tae-oh leaves a huge impression. He’s bad. It almost seems as though he does not fit in a moral gray zone, like most people do. There’s not much on his back story, either — what were your intentions in presenting him in that manner?

He consistently does bad things, but at times you also see him display kindness, whether it’s holding the elevator for people, handing a kid a toy or giving money to those he hurts. In those moments, Cho Tae-oh is really passing on kindness. He’s mocking no one. He’s the representation of a person who grew up in that sort of [mega-rich, unchecked] environment. A long time ago, someone of the royal family once famously said, “If you have no bread, why don’t you just eat meat?” They don’t know. He doesn’t understand and does not have a need to understand the lives of everyday people.

Yoo Ah-in in "Veteran" (Photo courtesy of CJ Entertainment)

Yoo Ah-in in “Veteran” (Photo courtesy of CJ Entertainment)

I think the people enabling his behavior, covering up his every mistake — his father, the managing director beside him — are worse people. Cho Tae-oh is an empty vessel who was created into a monster. He’s no psychopath. He’s just a child. When a small kid kills a bug or pulls wings off a dragonfly, it’s because they don’t understand it’s wrong. They do it because it’s fun in the moment. Values are taught, and Cho Tae-oh never learned.

I also think his upbringing is the reason he has no attachment to his possessions. He treats women like things, too, and I think it’s because he grew up not experiencing what it was truly like to be cared for. He’s always been the son of a rich man, and he thinks all anyone wants to do is benefit from him.

We see him as a bad person, but I thought showing him in that way was in the purest form. In fact, I thought showing a back story explaining why he acts that way would be the presentation of a more stereotypical villain.

You said yesterday (Ryoo did a Q&A session following a special screening in Koreatown) that the film’s about how people should treat people.

Yes. The way that this film is different from Hollywood films is how Seo Do-chul (the cop) is pushed into conflict. It’s not that something happened directly to him, or that there was an elaborate scheme. The reason this cop begins meddling with a case that’s not even in his jurisdiction is because of his innate sympathy for people. He’s driven purely by his perceived guilt of not picking up his phone when someone needed him.

Was there a message you wanted to deliver to audiences while making the film?

If this film were shown in a theater with 200 seats, then I think there are 200 versions of “Veteran.” No matter what my intentions, people see what they want to see and hear what they want to hear. Of course there is a message in my head, but I don’t want to say it. I tried my best to deliver it through the film. I just hope it’s a good experience for them. That’s where I’m always headed.


Visit CJ Entertainment for a complete list of North American theaters playing “Veteran.”